NATURE NOTES:
“Lost Crops Rediscovered”: Uncovering an Ancient History of Agave Farming

By Andrew Stuart

For Native Americans in the Southwest, agave was the staff of life. Slow-roasted, agave hearts were converted into sweet food, and nomadic peoples cached dried agave for lean winter months. Agave fiber was used in baskets and mats. The plant is famous today for distilled spirits – tequila, mezcal – and Native peoples also fermented agave, likely for ceremonial use.

In the 1980s, researchers began to uncover another thread in this rich story. First near Tucson, they found clear evidence that agave had been farmed. Agave was not only a wild food source – it was a crop.

Native agriculture in the Southwest is often identified with the “Three Sisters” – corn, beans and squash. In the early 80s, two Arizona archeologists found something unexpected. At an ancient farming site, they discovered agave spines and processing tools, spread across hundreds of acres. 

Other researchers were intrigued. Searching sites across the state, they found agaves that were clearly domesticated, hybridized by people.

Wendy Hodgson is curator of Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden. She’s at the forefront of the research.

“So these are domesticated species, farmed by pre-columbian people, that have remained in the hinterlands,” Hodgson said, “not always, but usually associated with [archeological] sites. So they’ve been hanging on for all these hundreds of years, since they were not taken care of.”

Hodgson and her colleagues have identified at least eight domesticated agaves. Some are found at a single site. Others moved among different societies – “either traded or raided,” Hodgson said. At least one species – the Phillips agave – was apparently grown across the Southwest: from the Hohokam of Arizona to the Mogollon society, which stretched from present-day southern New Mexico into far western Texas. 

Wild agaves can reproduce both sexually – through seed production – and asexually, cloning themselves through offshoots or “pups.” None of the domesticated agaves produce viable seed. That’s by design. With clones, indigenous farmers knew their agaves would retain desirable qualities.

What were those qualities?

Harvesting a wild agave – removing its spiny leaves and separating the “heart” from its taproot – is no simple task. The ancient farmers were mindful of that: the leaves of the domesticates are notably easier to cut than wild plants.

Agaves can take a decade or more to mature. Ancient farmers apparently tried to shorten the wait – domesticated agaves generally mature more quickly than their wild counterparts. 

And taste seems to have been a priority. At a recent festival, Hodgson roasted both wild and domesticated agaves – and invited festival-goers to a taste test.

“This isn’t a scientific survey,” Hodgson said, “but it’s revealing that the domesticates were judged by many, many, many people the sweetest over the wild ones.”

Agave-farming techniques varied among cultures – and were adapted to the local topography, soil and climate. Farmers arranged rocks to direct and retain runoff from rain. Near Sedona, agaves are often found at the base of sandstone bluffs, where runoff is greatest. In the Grand Canyon, narrow terraces may have been used for agave farming.

Research has focused on Arizona. But other agave domesticates could well be found at Chihuahuan Desert sites, Hodgson said. 

Yet the fact that agave domesticates have survived at all is remarkable. They were designed to be tended by humans. All are rare. As “human-influenced” plants, they can’t be protected under the Endangered Species Act. Hodgson said it will take active propagation efforts to preserve these “lost crops rediscovered.”

In terms of plant domestication, the southeastern U.S. is a recognized center. And central Mexico – the cradle of beans, squash, corn, chiles and more – rightfully claims the spotlight. But Hodgson’s research draws our attention to a history of agricultural innovation in the desert. 

“It’s a game changer,” she said. “Because when you think about it – at least in the United States, the southeastern U.S. was an important area of domestication. The Southwest, not so much. Of course, Mexico. This is really putting the Southwest front and center as an important area to do study and to consider as an important area for the cultivation of plants.”

It’s part of the legacy of societies that, for thousands of years, made this arid region their home.